Domestic workers are exploited


IT has come to light that Tanzanian domestic workers in Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) face excessive working hours, unpaid salaries, and physical and sexual abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report released recently.

The 100-page report titled: “‘Working Like a Robot’: Abuse of Tanzanian Domestic Workers in Oman and the United Arab Emirates,” documents how the Tanzanian, Omani, and UAE governments fail to protect Tanzanian migrant domestic workers.

Oman and the UAE’s kafala– visa-sponsorship– rules tie workers to their employers, and the lack of labor law protections leaves workers exposed to a wide range of abuse. In the same token, gaps in Tanzania’s laws and policies on recruitment and migration leave Tanzanian women exposed at the outset to abuse and fail to provide adequate assistance for exploited workers.

“Many Tanzanian domestic workers in Oman and the UAE are overworked, underpaid, and abused behind closed doors,” said Rothna Begum, a Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Workers who fled abusive employers or agents told us the police or their own embassy officials forced them to go back, or they had to relinquish their salaries and spend months raising money for tickets home.”

Most domestic workers in the Gulf states are Asian, many from Indonesia, the Philippines, India, and Sri Lanka. These countries have incrementally increased protections and minimum salary requirements to protect their domestic workers.

In some cases these countries have banned recruitment in the Gulf states entirely. Recruiters are increasingly turning to East Africa, where protections are weaker. Gulf employers often get away with paying East African workers far less than those from other countries.

Thousands of Tanzanian domestic workers are in the Middle East. While some have decent working conditions, many others face abuse. Human Rights Watch interviewed 87 people, including Tanzanian officials, trade unionists, recruitment agents, and 50 Tanzanian female domestic workers who worked in Oman or the UAE. Half the domestic workers were from mainland Tanzania, and the other half from Zanzibar, the country’s semi-autonomous island region.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recognizes the stark fact that domestic workers in Tanzania make a vital contribution to the smooth functioning of households. These lowly workers may clean, cook, iron clothes, look after the garden or care for children or elderly parents.

In that case, the ILO says, households should establish respectful relationships with those who care for their homes and families. “Making decent work a reality for domestic workers requires each one of us to play our part, the organization says.

The upshot is to see to it that everyone can start taking one step at a time to treat domestic workers with respect; recognize their work; pay a decent wage; guarantee sufficient rest and provide decent living conditions. The ILO estimates that 53 million people are engaged in domestic work worldwide.

This figure does not include child domestic workers, a phenomenon that is steadily rising in both developed and developing countries. Some 83 per cent of domestic workers are women. In Tanzania a domestic worker or servant is defined as any person who is employed wholly or partly as a cook, house servant, waiter, butler, maidservant, valet, bar attendant, groom, gardener, washman or watchman.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there is no specific provision in Tanzania which strictly applies to domestic workers alone. Domestic workers under Tanzania laws are considered together with other employees, so their rights are provided for under the Employment and Labour Relations Act, 2004 and Regulation of Wages and Terms of Employment Order, 2010.

However, experience has shown that many employers of domestic workers do not accord most of the labour law rights to employees, and research has shown that this is due to poverty. Often the employers of domestic workers receive minimum wages and therefore cannot afford to provide minimum wages to their own domestic workers.

Another reason is because some employers of domestic workers are ignorant of the law. Additionally, However some domestic workers themselves are not aware of their employment rights, and cannot therefore enforce these rights in the workplace. On the political scene, women’s dissent in connection with their lowly status in society did not go unnoticed last year from the upper employment echelons to the household level. A few years ago women demanded a 50-50 representation in the Nation Assembly.

Their request was granted but they still have a fight on their hands -- they must win in the constituency polls to make it to the debating chamber. The women also demanded more chances in the Cabinet and other decision making positions in government.

Their voices found listening ears but even here, positions do not come on a silver platter. Those who contend for top positions in the world of white-collar workers must have requisite qualifications to flaunt. Unfortunately, not many women have the requisite education and the guts to fight to the top.

At the lowest rung are domestic workers, waiters and small-scale business women. These too complained bitterly, demanding improvement in their standards of living. Perhaps the hardest hit were the domestic workers, some of whom do not get any remuneration at all.

The press in this country railed at the miserable working conditions of domestic workers but its extent of coverage did not dig deep enough to expose the extreme situations of nearslavery rather than the general situation of servitude and exploitation.

While it is imperative that such cases be condemned, thepress did not provide a comprehensive scenario of the working conditions and status of domestic workers. Therefore, it did not help to improve the welfare of vulnerable domestic workers.

The domestic workers’ job is an elusive category that is difficult to be defined. It is even more difficult to protect this kind of worker who is, invariably, invisible. The workplace itself—the private household. It is near-impossible for labour inspectors to wander into private homes in a quest to speak to domestic workers.

The situation is equally difficult for workers’ organizations for collective action. So, in the case of clandestine situations, which can occur more easily in this type of workplace, workers are even more vulnerable and virtually voiceless. It is common knowledge that domestic work is mainly performed by women, especially the young, naïve girls, some of whom are shunted in from rural villages.

In Tanzania, domestic workers include young boys who are often roped in to mind cattle, pigs or chicken. Domestic workers often include housekeepers, cattle minders, shamba boys, drivers, shop attendants, child minders and others. Some live-in domestic workers earn as little as 30,000/- a month.

The ruse for this anomaly is that the workers eat at their master’s table. It is difficult to give a rough estimate of the number of domestic workers in Tanzania due to the presence of unregulated or clandestine relationships. Even domestic workers who are the most exploited may not be ready to report their predicament to authorities.

Unregistered workers do not appear in official statistics and child domestic workers are ignored by household surveys. They are not supposed to work and are counted as children of the household. This assumption, unknown to the surveyors, hurts the vulnerable.

Given its social and economic invisibility and the accompanying low social status, domestic work is often exploitative. Most domestic workers encounter exploitative, inhumane working conditions. Many slog it out for a living in long hours of work; others lug heavy loads and there are those who lack privacy.

Nearly all domestic workers get low salaries, inadequate accommodation and too little food (especially the live-in workers). There is also the problem of job insecurity, absence of benefits normally granted to other categories of workers, and exposure to violence and abuse.

Most domestic workers have limited time for rest and rarely enjoy leisure. In Tanzania, most domestic workers hail from less affluent regions such as Dodoma, Singida and Iringa. Employers’ eyes often scout for poor, jobless boys and girls who fail their Standard Seven examinations in rural Tanzania.

This sorry spectacle appears to have come to the attention of the government apparently because domestic workers do not have an association that speaks out for them. So, they remain sufferers in silence.

As they come from the most disadvantaged parts of the population and work at tasks that are highly useful but invariably seen as degrading, domestic workers are almost always subjected to insults and humiliation by their employers.

Safe in their own home employers can easily terrorize an employee by threatening him or her with all sorts of punishments if he or she does not work as they want and at the speed that they want. Threats of beatings, threats to her family, threats to kick him or her out are frequent in most homes.

Whether these threats are carried out or not, the ILO says, they build up a climate of stress around the employee, particularly if he or she is living in the employer’s house. This undesirable situation exists in Tanzania, albeit at a smaller scale.

Most victims of abuse, humiliation and exploitation never report the matter to legal authorities. They opt to suffer in silence, often in fear of losing their jobs or falling into greater suffering.

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